I got the absolute privilege to sit down and speak with Joyce Elliott last week over the phone. Below is the full transcribed interview along with the full audio recording as well.
What inspired you to run for Congress?
I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, a little town called Willisville of a hundred and fifty-two people. I was part of a forced integration in my early years when I was in the tenth grade and I had, of course lived the life as a Southerner. So, I understood how things were impacted by politics to some extent. In this situation, I had planned to accept a scholarship to a college that was all black and I was planning on going to college. That experience upended my plans for college, it upended so much of my life.
I just had to endure so much, the strings and arrows of students and teachers who did not want me at that school. I was fifteen years old and my sister was the first African-American to graduate from that school and I was the second one. I just had teachers who were not nourishing and embracing like they were in my other school. That was part of the experience that made me want to become a teacher and get in public service to start with because I thougth all kids should have different kinds of teachers.
I did that for nearly thirty years and during that time I understood even more how politics works and effects everything. I though it made sense because I had been inspired by many people and I though this was the time to do something. To make a move and serve in politics and change things that I saw around me in education. Public service has just been a through line of my life and that’s one of the things that contracts me from French Hill (Elliotts GOP opponent and current incumbent). That was what put me in a position where public service was what I wanted to do with my life.
You ran for the previous version of this seat in 2010. What has changed since then that’s made you want to run again?
I had a very successful career in the legislature so far, but the opportunity came up. The D-triple-C approached me about running and I gave it some very serious thought. There were things that I had seen happening, I worked very hard across the aisle to get the Affordable Care Act passed and time and time again Congressman Hill and others were trying to just get rid of it. That’s something that really changed peoples lives and we were the first state in the South to expand Medicaid. I saw things like that happening when everybody in Congress has good healthcare and that is a big issue in our district. They have great healthcare and they are trying to take it away from folks who just now were able o go to the doctors and have healthcare.
Also the times are very different, we didn’t have that hatred from President Obama being in office. I just felt I was in a position that I could do it, it is important to do it because I don’t think we have to settle for what’s going on in Washington. I’ve always been a person who thought if I could do something about something that’s going on I should do it and not expect others to do it. This is there time that there’s so much happening and it’s such a great opportunity to be part of building a better America.
You raised a very impressive six hundred thousand dollars this past quarter. Have you been surprised by the amount of donations your campaign has received?
Well, I’m not surprised that people are giving, but I’ve been surprised by where the money is coming from. One in ten of our are teachers, who don’t make a lot of money. We have gotten a lot of support from all over the state itself and forty-two dollars is the average contribution that we’ve gotten. It’s really been a wide range of grassroots folks who have contributed to us.
It’s not so much surprising as it’s been just rewarding. That people want to be able to make this decision and they’re willing to invest in it.
How much has the way you’ve campaigned been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The first thing to happen, we were running our campaign like everybody else and then when the pandemic happened so many things we had to start doing online. The first thing we had to start doing online was to figure out how to continue to raise money online and we figured that out. The we started working it for others things, Zoom is our friend there. Then during the pandemic all of the protests that came about with Black Lives Matter were brought up. Instead of being able to go around and participate in what is going on in a thoughtful kind of way like we normally do, we had to come up with creative ways.
I am a kidney donor, I have only one and not another one to spare. I had to find ways to get out among people, while still putting on that personal touch and not putting myself in jeopardy since that’s a problem with COVID-19. So we finally decided and came up with deploying the pickup truck. We would get a pickup truck and go out for example, I went to White County, that is a very rural county. We used the pickup truck, somebody brought one there, and I was standing in the back of the truck so we could still have that human interaction and still not compromise my condition with one kidney. We’ve had to do lots of things like that and just be thoughtful about it. But we’ve been satisfied so far.
Arkansas has changed a lot politically since you first started. It went from a state that was heavily Democratic at the state level to heavily Republican at all levels in about 10 years. How has that changed how you’ve tried to govern?
I think one of the things people miss about Arkansas and being a state run by Democrats that it’s relatively always been on the side of bi-partisanship. It’s never been, until now, i’s never been a state where it’s been difficult think in the terms of “it’s just one party”, so one party is just going to do everything and not work across the aisle. I already have skills and know how to work with people who are different and have different ideas than me back from the days I was integrating a school.
Now I haver to work more deliberately while working across the aisle and I believe in collaboration over compromise because that’s how we get the best policies. In fact one of the policies I was able to spearhead was creating a very robust and the number one Pre-K program in the country for a while, we are not number one now, but that was a result that worked across the aisle, same thing with Medicaid. It just means for most people you have to work hard at it, but I’ve always had to do that. For me there is joy in working with people different from me and finding solutions when people assume you can’t because of party differences.
If you end up winning this election, what is your day one goal in Congress?
I think the thing we have to do, I’ve been first and foremost in my estimation here in Arkansas healthcare and what’s happening with the pandemic and the fall out from that. Those are the things that people are most concerned about. We have to find a way to bring our country, not even just say bring it back, but there’s certainly an aspect of that. We need o fix what’s happening with COVID and look at protecting ourselves. How do we build our economy after COVID and not one that’s based on Congress passing 2 or 3 more trillion dollar packages, but how do we regrow our economy. How do we rebuild our infrastructure that we’ve been talking about so long. It is an opportunity to start over.
For me, that is number one. Healthcare is another that after the fallout from COVID and how we rebuild it as a country as a result of that.
You’ve received endorsements from Democratic groups like EMILY’s List. How much has their support helped you along in your campaign?
It’s been quite helpful. It’s not something I started out assuming was going to be part of our campaign. We’ve been building a campaign around people and folks who believe in us, but it certainly is helpful with resources and getting into doors we were not expecting to get in. It’s elevated our districts status and elevated the needs of our district that may have gone unspoken if we did not have that kind of support.
The DCCC has also put you in their “Red to Blue” program. Has that given your campaign the resources and confidence to make this race competitive?
Absolutely, it’s been immensely important because they have given us economic and organizational support. When you become a “Red to Blue” candidate, that means there are people who are going to pay attention to you and your race that maybe would not have. Along with that will come those who support you. It was a big shot in the arm for us.
You’ve also received an endorsement from Elizabeth Warren. Do you think the endorsement from one of the faces of progressive politics could hurt you in a district that still favors Republicans?
I think pretty much what we know is that people will look past that and focus on me. I have Democrats, Independents and people of all stripes who are supporting my campaign. The big thing for me is that I’m not defined by the people who endorse me. Part of that is having had a career in the state and having people know who I am and what I care about. One of the things people know about me is nobody endorses me to tell me what I’m going to do. I’ve made my career making sure that people know what my independence means that I’ll do what is best for the people I represent. That’s all Democrats and Republicans so I don’t think that will have the effect of erasing who I am.
Education has been a main focus for you throughout your political career. What do you think Congress can do to improve our nation’s education standards?
I think we really need to have people in Washington trumpeting the face we need people who understand education. That should star withe the removal of anybody with a mindset of Betsy DeVos. Because the person who is at the top of education in this country should be someone who is looking around at the rest of the world and making sure that we can compete with the rest of the world, not just the next state over.
Washington has a responsibility to support states and localities so that every student can have a world class education and it needs to be world class. Teachers and others in the schools have to have support. We have to figure out ways that we don’t expect to have world class education without making sure there’s the infrastructure to make it happen. I am very very worried that we are not focused on America’s position in the world and being world class and not just adequate, because that is what is happening in our country.
If you do win this election, you will be the first black person, male or female, to be sent to Congress to represent Arkansas. In this time of what seems to be an inflection point for change in America, how much would that mean to you?
It would be a marquee event in my life and I think in our state as well. I have had this long life and I want every little boy and girl, no matter which person of color they are, that his something that will give Arkansas better representation of who we are and what we strive to be. The other big thing it will do is it will finally put Arkansas in a position of not being one of the old confederate states that vestige of not having elected an African American man or woman to serve in Congress.